Why are so many NFL players dying young in 2022?
Former Steelers WR Charles Johnson’s death comes just a little over a month after several shocking NFL deaths, including Jaylon Ferguson and Marion Barber.
On Wednesday, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Charles Johnson was found dead at the age of 50. The cause is still unknown as of this writing. Johnson was discovered the same way that former Cowboys running back and 38-year-old Marion Barber was in June - during a welfare check.
It seems like NFL players, both former and current, are dropping like flies this offseason. What makes it strange is that it seems like they are dying at young ages and in random ways. Is this something new or are NFL players more at risk of dying young?
Here is an overview of some of the tragic NFL player’s deaths we have seen just in the offseason in 2022.
Shane Olivea, 40 years old
The former San Diego Chargers player Shane Olivea was reported dead in March 2022. It was announced about three months later that he died of “hypersensitive heart disease”.
Dwayne Haskins, 24 years old
In April 2022, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Dwayne Haskins was crossing an intersection in South Florida and was hit by a car. He was pronounced dead at the scene. It was reported that he had alcohol and drugs in his system at the time.
Jeff Gladney, 25 years old
Arizona Cardinals corner back Jeff Gladney was involved in a car accident in May 2022 in Dallas, Texas, which killed both him and his girlfriend, Mercedes Palacios.
Jaylon Ferguson, 26 years old
In June 2022, the Baltimore Ravens confirmed the death of their linebacker, Jaylon Ferguson. His death was ruled as accidental and the cause was ruled as the combined effects of fentanyl and cocaine.
Marion Barber, 38 years old
Former Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears running back Marion Barber was found dead in his bathtub inside his home in June 2022. It was later reported that Barber died of heat stroke.
Tony Siragusa, 55 years old
Former Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Tony Siragusa died in June 2022. The cause of death is still being investigated, but police were called to his home, where he’d been receiving CPR. His death was reported in the same week as Jaylon Ferguson.
Charles Johnson, 50 years old
Charles Johnson was a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was found dead in a hotel on Wednesday. The cause of death is still being investigated and has not yet been released.
Are NFL players at more of a risk of dying young?
The answer to that question seems to depend on with whom you’re comparing NFL players. Until 2019, no study had been done comparing the rate of two groups of professional athletes’ deaths to each other. Only studies comparing the mortality rates between professional athletes and the general population had been done before. The findings of a 2019 study of over 6,000 former professional athletes showed that NFL players died at a rate of nearly 1.3 times higher than that of Major League Baseball players. It showed that NFL players died of neurodegenerative diseases at a higher rate than MLB players, but that both were more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than brain disease.
A previous study showed that NFL players actually tended to live longer than the general public and had a decreased mortality rate and lower cardiovascular mortality (2012). A later study conducted in 2018 showed that NFL players who played full careers were at a 38% higher risk of dying young compared to those players who only played a few games. At that time, the focus was on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease which causes memory loss, confusion, aggression, rage, depression, and suicidal tendencies. It’s caused by repeated head trauma.
It’s difficult to draw hard conclusions from the 2018 study comparing NFL career players to replacement players, due to all of the random variables. In the 2019 study (between NFL and MLB players), however, it showed that on average, NFL players died around seven years earlier. The biggest cause of death amongst the football players was heart disease, which is a separate issue from the neurological problems players may suffer. The study results were inconclusive as to why NFL players have more deaths due to heart and brain issues than MLB players, but it could be hypothesised that it’s due to football players taking more blows to the head and being in general larger than baseball players.
As for CTE, it can only be found in the brain after death, so it is difficult to study. It has been found in several NFL players who have died, though, including Frank Gifford, Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Mike Webster, Dwight Clark and Aaron Hernandez.
What about all the seemingly random NFL deaths?
Though there is no conclusive evidence, it could be assumed that the culture of “toughness” that surrounds the NFL has something to do with players dying at a young age. Players who play through injuries are praised. Players who sit out are seen as weak. This kind of mentality could have unseen effects on the mental health of players.
In that same 2018 study comparing NFL career players and replacement players, there were not enough deaths to determine significant differences in the ways they died. However, there were more fatal car accidents in the NFL career group than in the replacement group. Plus, seven career players died of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), compared to none from the replacement group. However, even if these findings were more statistically significant, it would not necessarily indicate a cause and effect between playing professionally in the NFL and dying young.
“These findings should be considered suggestive, not definite,” said Dr. Atheendar Venkataramani, lead author of the 2018 study. “But the directionality of our findings is different from what prior literature has shown, and that’s a good reason we should continue following these players and pulling on this thread.”
“Hopefully we can detect even smaller and more meaningful differences among football players, and get a real sense of how player health is truly affected by the game.”